Revealing Ancient Rome: The Colosseum

The Colosseum is one of the most iconic remnants of the ancient world. A gargantuan building that has stood for almost 2000 years, damaged only by natural forces and the looting activities of modern humans, it never fails to impress those who lay eyes upon it for the first time. Its enormous size, ingenious architectural features, fascinating history, and cultural significance make it a beloved sight for Romans and tourists alike.

There is much more to the grand Flavian Amphitheatre than impressive old bricks and stones – it’s a magnificent testament to the eternal glory of the Roman Empire.

The Spilling of Blood at Funeral Games

Construction on the Colosseum began in CE* 70, started by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty – hence its other name, the Flavian Amphitheatre. It was Rome’s first permanent amphitheatre, and the decision to build it was not taken lightly. The Senate was opposed to large public gladiatorial combat shows in fear of riots, such as the one that happened at the amphitheatre in Pompei in AD 59, which led to several spectator fatalities and many injuries.

Up until the construction of the Colosseum, gladiatorial fights were usually held in makeshift wooden arenas as part of funerary games, as it was believed at the time that the spilling of blood at a funeral was pleasing to the souls of the dead. Thus, the sacrifice of cheap slaves or prisoners of war, via forced gladiatorial combat to the death, was common at high-profile funerals.

An Amphitheatre for the People of Rome

The amphitheatre was built on the site of Nero’s personal lake, which, once drained, provided an ideal central position for such a massive public building. This was a very smart decision. The Roman people had resented Nero for claiming private land for himself after the great fire of CE 64, and building a massive palace for himself – the Domus Aurea, or “Golden House”. Reclaiming land for the public set Vespasian apart from his greedy and disliked predecessor, and the construction of the amphitheatre was a way to regain the affection of the public.

Although the amphitheatre was named after Vespasian’s Flavian dynasty, it most likely became known as the “Colosseum” in reference to the 30 metre high bronze statue of Emperor Nero that stood next to the amphitheatre for many years after his suicide. The Colossus of Nero has since been destroyed, and most of the remaining brick base was eliminated by Mussolini in the 1930s. Only the foundations remain today.

Although the Colosseum is mostly intact, and it still amazes millions of visitors every year, it must have been utterly awe-inspiring at the inaugural games in CE 80. A large section of the outer colonnade of the building is missing, most of the travertine cladding and marble has long since been looted, no sculptures remain standing in any of the upper arches, and the arena floor is gone. And yet, the ruin is still able to evoke a feeling of going back in time – a moment in which you stop and stare, and imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago.

Front Row Seats to a Spectacle of Slaughter

It is estimated that the Colosseum could seat around 45 000 – 50 000 people at any one time – can you imagine the atmosphere when it was full to capacity of eager, bloodthirsty Roman citizens? The spectators could enter the amphitheatre incredibly quickly, thanks to a complex seating system, easy access to seating blocks via designated staircases, and many entrances via the arches on the ground floor. The seating arrangements were as follows:

  • Special boxes at arena level (the lowest tier of the seating) – with the best view – reserved for the Emperor and Vestal Virgins, seated at the north and south ends of the amphitheatre, respectively. The Vestal Virgins were given privileges due to their high religious status, which overrode their low gender status.
  • A podium at the same level (arena level) was reserved for the senatorial classes. You can still see some of the names of prominent 5th century senators carved into the marble seats!
  • The next tier seated the noble class of “knights”, or equites.
  • One level up was the section allocated for ordinary citizens (predominantly male – women could not be full, voting Roman citizens). This section was divided into two parts – the lower part seated wealthy citizens, whereas the upper part seated poorer citizens. Different social groups were also seated together – scribes, priests, etc.
  • The worst, least comfortable seats were right at the top level of the Colosseum. Slaves, the very poor, and women were limited to this seating area. They had shade from the massive Colosseum canopy, but almost zero visibility and very poor conditions.

Each seat had a number, and each spectator likely received a numbered token upon entering the Colosseum, so it was easy for people to find their seats quickly and without fuss. Exiting the amphitheatre was equally effortless. Entrance was usually free, and the gladiatorial games held by emperors were wildly popular with the Roman people, from nobles to slaves.

For a wonderfully informative journal article on the cultural and societal significance of the gladiatorial games in Romeclick here.

Like most other ancient Roman buildings, the Colosseum was built primarily from brick-faced concrete, blocks of tufa (a kind of rock comprised of compressed volcanic ash, found in abundance near Rome), and travertine (a form of limestone). There are some fantastic examples of typical Roman architecture within the Colosseum. Due to its current state of semi-ruin, we can see the into the amphitheatre’s grand structural framework, and learn more about the pure genius behind the architecture.

Roman Architecture – Layers and Logic

Most grand Roman buildings appear to have been constructed of pure stone (or marble), but the truth is much more fascinating! The secret to Rome’s architectural power was the discovery of opus caementicum, or “concrete”, towards the end of the Republican period. This inexpensive, versatile, and incredibly durable concrete revolutionized Roman building techniques. Concrete was created from a special kind of red volcanic sand, lime mortar, stone and pottery rubble, and water. The materials needed to be combined in the correct proportions, and then the concrete was ready to be used. It would harden in any form – even underwater!

The Romans were innovative in their architectural techniques, adapting classical Greek styles to suit their needs, prioritizing function over “aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics”, and pushing the boundaries of architectural possibilities. Take the Pantheon, for example – built in AD 126, its immense coffered concrete dome remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world!

The use of concrete made building walls inexpensive and easy. Rough concrete walls (built by pouring concrete into wooden forms, which were later removed) were faced with stones or fired mud bricks, in one of three styles:

1. Opus incertum

Opus incertum, or “irregular work”, refers to structures with a concrete core, and a facing of irregular, uncut stones fitted together haphazardly. The resulting look is natural and rustic, and required less workmanship than opus testaceum and opus reticulatum.

2. Opus testaceum 

Opus testaceum (kiln-dried brick-work), or opus latericium (sun-dried brick-work), are the names given to a concrete or rubble core faced with roughly-laid, fired clay bricks. These bricks are usually laid horizontally, in a uniform and regular pattern.

3. Opus reticulatum

Opus reticulatum, or “reticulated work”, is the name given to brickwork formed by diamond-oriented square bricks or tiles. The tiles form a diagonal pattern that resembles a net.

Most often, a combination of all three styles, and other kinds of stonework, were combined in novel ways to achieve new and revolutionary structures, at reasonable costs and with quick construction times. Roman concrete was used to create barrel vaults and arches, and it was used extensively in the construction of the vaults of the Colosseum. Below, you can see quite clearly the different building techniques, and the overall effect of a beautiful and coherent structure.

From Gladiators and Glory to Disuse and Ruin

The inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre were held in CE 80 or 81, upon the completion of construction. Emperor Titus, the son of Vespasian (who had died in CE 79), presided over the games, which lasted for 100 days and reportedly entailed the slaughter of over 9000 exotic animals! The subterranean area of the Colosseum, visible today because the majority of the wooden arena floor is absent, was one of the prison-like quarters where gladiators would live and train. It was also a kind of “behind the scenes” (below the scenes?) area where set pieces were stored and hoisted up onto the arena floor, and where wild animals were transferred from their cages to the fighting arena.

A typical spectacle, besides the one-to-one or group armed gladiatorial combat massacres, was the “wild animal hunt”. The arena was transformed into an almost theatrical set, resembling an exotic place, such as Egypt – complete with wooden props such as pyramids and palm trees! Exotic animals sourced from foreign lands would be let loose in the arena, and “hunted” by gladiators who specialized in fighting animals. Crocodiles, lions, hippos, and even giraffes were fair game. The arena could even be flooded to host grand naval mock-battles!

The ancient Romans delighted in these blood-soaked spectacles, and the emperors Titus and Domitian were very fond of gladiatorial fights. However, with the increasing popularity of Christianity and the advent of the first Christian emperors, gladiatorial fights ceased around AD 435. The Colosseum was re-purposed in Medieval times, even being partially converted into a fortress by the Frangipani family in 1200. It was damaged by lightning, fires, and earthquakes over the years, and rebuilt various times, until it fell into almost total disrepair. It was used as a quarry, and materials were looted for the construction of other structures.

In the 18th century, it was proclaimed a sacred Christian site by Pope Benedict XIV as the resting place for Christian martyrs who had allegedly been executed in the Colosseum. The Stations of the Cross were installed, and the Colosseum was protected from further destruction. Several reconstruction projects helped to preserve the remains of the amphitheatre, and excavations revealed the subterranean complex below the arena floor.

Visiting the Colosseum Today

Today, there is ongoing restorative work to preserve what is left of the Colosseum. Many tourists are disappointed to see that parts of the amphitheatre are almost always covered in scaffolding, but this perpetual construction is crucial for making sure that the Colosseum stays standing for future generations.

Visitors can still see almost everything the Colosseum has to offer – you can admire it from outside for free, or buy a ticket to explore the interior. The ground level and first floor of the cavea (tiered seating section) are accessible to visitors, and you can get amazing views of the interior of the amphitheatre. I’d highly recommend either taking a guided tour, or hiring an audio/audio-visual guide for your visit. For an extra-special experience, book a private tour of the subterranean areas of the Colosseum.

Essential reconstruction work is almost constant, but modern scaffolding doesn’t take away from the impressiveness of the structure
From this angle, you can see the oval shape of the Colosseum, and the modern reconstructed arena floor
The very top section of the Colosseum, where the supporting poles of the awning were attached. The awning was operated by a crew of sailors!

* CE – Common Era, previously AD or Anno Domini (‘in the year of the Lord’).